Feet of Clay

Clay is a difficult medium, as anyone who's ever made the ugliest fish in fourth-grade art class can attest. It either falls in on itself, explodes in the kiln, or does something else unsightly and perfectly predictable. Jerry Rothman was one of the first to crack the code with his bizarre treatment of a man birthing himself from the slit of a giant pea pod (surely it's not a vagina!?) about three feet across. He's been birthing himself for all the world to see right in front of the Laguna Art Museum since 1997. So what the hell is Rothman doing at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA)? Mostly seeing and being seen, but he's got good work in there, too.

Rothman is one of several artists in OCCCA's “One Part Paint, Three Parts Clay,” an exhibition that ought to be a century of train wrecks but isn't. You see, OCCCA is an artists' co-op; as such, it is peopled with artists who are sometimes very terrible but are nevertheless guaranteed a set number of shows in the lovely, big Artists Village space. The weakest part of the show—and it's not bad, just dull—is the back room, which is almost hidden from view, as it should be. It neglects sculpture for mediocre paintings, and I shall spend no time on it. You're welcome.

Rothman's Bay Views 1-12 are wonderful. They rest throughout half the gallery on cylindrical pedestals—no figures pushing their way out of orifices, just abstracted forms as smooth and puffy as that expanding foam you spray to plug up mouse holes. Don't know what I'm talking about? Lucky you!

In varying sunset colors (but not at all cloying), Rothman's grays and pinks are as soft-looking and squishy as a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. His yellows are more vomity, an ocher that lets the dark clay shine through like rust, and his orange pieces curve in on themselves like really pretty intestines. In some of the sculptures, a large hoop rises up from the clay to frame the vision like a decoupage beach scene. And while these are graceful, they're the least successful: there's more than a whiff of Laguna to them. You can easily imagine the hoop holding a crystal dolphin leaping over cerulean waves, and once that vision is in your head, there's no getting rid of it. I once had that circus theme—Doo doodle doo doo doo/Doo doo doo doo/Doo doodle doo doo doo doo doo doo/Doo doodle doo doo doo doo doo doo—in my head for 14 hours straight, and thoughts of Wyland polluting everything are just as awful and insidious. That's unfortunate, as the series is bizarre and Martian and just generally lovely and bitchen, and then there you are with poison in your soul. Goddamn Wyland!

The best of the show belongs to Petronella Bannier, who works with big ugly casts of clay bodies without heads (and sometimes without torsos as well). A couple of her figures—Proposal—are knobby, well-thumbed, drooping folks dripping thin streaks of brown paint. They couldn't be any more Manuel Neri if the Roslin Institute had cloned Bannier from his DNA. But a closer look reveals a wound in the proposer's side, like Christ's or a victim of Aztec sacrifice, and a little, shrunken wee dangling between his thighs. The proposee, on her small pedestal of white, gets something that resembles a head. Lucky girl!

Bannier's larger works, Going Through Helland Neither World—and I'm not sure whether “Neither” was a typo on the gallery's part—are outstanding. They're huge, masculine legs held in the air by wires, an arm gesticulating somewhere above. The big feet (size 30?) are beautifully formed, the ankles and calves thick and strong. I didn't know legs could be moving, but they are.

On one wall, Sandy Deeks' tiny (maybe four inches by four inches) acrylic-on-wood paintings are charming and shiny, the colors pure and thick like a new tattoo, but with none of the fineness of line. Instead, they're intentionally washed together and muddled up, some like Easter eggs, some with the thick lines (not to mention the heavy breasts) of a Gauguin. But they're quickly passed.

It's Barbara Thompson's works that could leave the viewer itching. She's got one titled Mother surrounded by a bower of fake roses. But just when she's got you beaten down with all the damn flowers stuck to her sculptures, she throws together some Classical crotch shots that are sublime and real dirty. Rosas: Beginning and End #2 is a set of three plaster torsos, one decked out in a nipply wifebeater, one in a G-string, and one with pretty breasts over big men's briefs. Somehow, the plaster roses affixed to the nipples aren't annoying; instead, they're just plain sexy. And the way the plaster splits at the crotch, making trenches that speak volumes? It forgives any black-velvet-and-rose-petals maudlinery Thompson could dream up. Really, can't I have anyone to hate?

“One Part Paint, Three Parts Clay” at Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore, Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Through April 29.

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